World Leaders Are About to Double Down on Gender Equality and Reproductive Health
Here’s what you need to know about the International Conference on Population and Development.
Between Nov. 12 and 14, world leaders will meet in Nairobi, Kenya, for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The ICPD is a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) initiative.
The conference will also be attended by advocates, health organizations, women’s and youth activists, and other key stakeholders from around the world.
It marks 25 years since the first ICPD meeting in Cairo, Egypt, when leaders of 179 nations pledged to prioritize reproductive health and rights.
It was the first time that women’s reproductive health had been officially recognized on the global stage.
One of the outcomes from the 1994 conference in Cairo was the revolutionary Programme of Action, which advocates for access to voluntary birth control, pregnancy and childbirth services, as well as treatment for sexually transmitted infections.
The Programme of Action — adopted by all 179 governments at the 1994 conference — also stated that all forms of gender discrimination need to be erased in order for women to be equal participants in public, political, and economic life.
“The world has seen remarkable progress [since the first ICPD conference in 1994],” according to UNFPA.
Among other achievements, there has been a 25% increase in global contraceptive prevalence around the world, UNFPA notes. Meanwhile, adolescent birth rates have declined steeply, and the global maternal mortality ratio has fallen.
“But progress has been slow and uneven,” UNFPA adds. “Hundreds of millions of women around the world are still not using modern contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and global targets on reducing maternal deaths have not been met.”
These are three of the issues that still need to be addressed at ICPD in Nairobi to create a world where women and girls have access to their full reproductive health rights rights and equal opportunities.
1. Female Genital Mutilation
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an internationally recognized human rights abuse that affects more than 200 million girls and women in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
FGM is set to continue having a devastating impact on the health of girls and women around the world unless drastic action is taken against it.
UNICEF estimates that at least 68 million more girls — some as young as infants — are at risk of being victims of FGM by 2030.
Like child marriage, FGM takes away girls’ ownership of their bodies, and can lead to life-long health problems that inclulde cysts, genital ulcers, chronic plain, pelvic infections, and psychological trauma.
Jaha Dukereh, a Gambian-born anti-FGM activist, was first cut when she was just a week old. She was cut again when she was 15 years old so that her marriage, which was forced, could be consummated.
She believes that ending FGM needs political will, and has been advocating for the African Union (AU) to champion ending FGM in Africa, where, according to the WHO, at least 90 million girls and women have been cut. There are also 3 million new cases of FGM in Africa every year.
"We want the AU to put more pressure on member countries. Many countries in Africa have laws against FGM but are not implementing them,” Dukereh told Al-Jazeera.
"We are asking the AU to pass a resolution by 2020 which makes FGM illegal in every country within the continent," she added.
2. Access to Universal Reproductive and Sexual Health Care
Goal 3 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals works to achieve good health and well-being for all. One of the specific targets set within Goal 3 is improving access to reproductive and sexual health care.
This includes access to information, family planning, and education and awareness about reproductive health and rights.
Tewodros Melesse, director-general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) explained in a report that without sexual and reproductive health and rights, girls and women will not have control over their lives.
Meanwhile, 234 million women of reproductive age in developing countries aren’t able to reliably access modern contraceptives — which accounts for 84% of unwanted pregnancies in those countries.
Additionally, almost 800 women around the world die every day as a result of complications during pregnancy and childbirth, with 99% of these deaths occurring in developing countries.
However, there has been some progress, as the UNFPA explains. Since 1994, voluntary access to modern contraception has increased by 25%, and preventable maternal deaths have gone down by 40%.
Even so, there is still a long way to go, with girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa being the most affected by lack of universal access to reproductive and sexual health care.
“Guaranteeing sexual and reproductive health and rights for all must be at the heart of the world’s response to the challenge of generating sustainable development,” Melesse added.
3. Gender Equality and Its Role in Achieving the Global Goals
At the core of the Programme of Action are 15 principles that are aimed at keeping all population issues — from growth and migration to climate action and social justice — at the forefront of sustainable development.
Globally, for people aged 25 to 34, there are 122 women living in extreme poverty for every 100 men, according to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of UN Women.
"That's 22% more women than men living on less than $1.90 a day at the age when they are most likely to have young families and considerable needs," she added, in a conversation with Women Deliver.
When it comes to how women and girls continue to be impacted by inequality, it essentially extends across all areas — from agriculture and nutrition to education to employment to health, and more.
An estimated 60% of people who are chronically hungry are girls and women, and less than 20% of landowners globally are women, even though they do the bulk of agricultural work in regions like Africa and Asia.
When it comes to access to education, two-thirds of the world's 796 million illiterate people are women. Meanwhile, only 39% of rural girls attend secondary school compared to 45% of rural boys, and 59% and 60% for urban girls and boys.
Access to education is essential for laying the foundations of gender equality and it has a significant effect on a woman’s entire life — education often leads women to marry at a later age or to have children later in life.
“On gender equality, in particular, sometimes there is an illusion of exaggerated success about how far we have come,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said. “But when you present data — for instance, about how many women are in decision-making bodies, unequal pay, or the number of discriminatory laws limiting women’s rights and opportunities — then you get people to see that we are still far from winning the battle.”
ICPD is a moment for the international community to stand up and ensure that progress for gender equality continues.